In the latter half of the 1930s the southern plains were devastated by drought, wind erosion, and great dust storms. Some of the storms rolled far eastward, darkening skies all the way to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The areas most severely affected were western Texas, eastern New Mexico, the Oklahoma Panhandle, western Kansas, and eastern Colorado. This ecological and economic disaster and the region where it happened came to be known as the Dust Bowl.
According to the federal Soil Conservation Service, the bowl covered 100 million acres in 1935. By 1940 the area had declined to twenty-two million acres. It disappeared in the forties. A prolonged drought, combined with unusually high temperatures and strong winds, caused the normally semiarid region to become for a while a veritable desert. During some growing seasons the soil was dry to a depth of three feet. Lack of rain plagued the northern plains states too, though less severely.
Droughts occur regularly on the plains; an extreme one comes roughly every twenty years, and milder ones every three or four. But in historic times there is no record of such wind erosion as accompanied the drought in the thirties. In 1932 there were 14 dust storms of regional extent; in 1933, thirty-eight; in 1934, twenty-two; in 1935, forty; in 1936, sixty-eight; in 1937, seventy-two; in 1938, sixty-one; in 1939, thirty; in 1940, seventeen; in 1941, seventeen. In Amarillo the worst year for storms was 1935, when they lasted a total of 908 hours. Seven times, from January to March, the visibility in Amarillo declined to zero; one of these complete blackouts lasted eleven hours. In another instance a single storm raged for 3½ days.
Some of the storms afflicting the plains were merely "sand blows," produced by the low sirocco-like winds that came from the Southwest and left the sandier soils drifted into dunes along fencerows and ditches. Less frequent but far more dramatic were the "black blizzards," which appeared with a sudden, violent turbulence, rising like a long wall of muddy water as high as 7,000 or 8,000 feet. The most notorious of these occurred on April 14, 1935. Like the winter blizzards to which they were compared, these storms were caused by the arrival of a polar continental air mass; the atmospheric electricity they generated lifted the dirt higher and higher in a cold boil, sometimes accompanied by thunder and lightning and at other times by an eerie silence. Such "dusters" were not only terrifying to observe but immensely destructive to the region's fine, dark soils.
Repeatedly in those years dirt and sand destroyed crops, property, and mental and physical health. The misery of the era was widely chronicled and eloquently captured in such books as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). People shoveled the dirt from their front yards and swept up bushel basketfuls inside their houses. Automobile and tractor engines were ruined by grit. The human costs were even harder to calculate and bear. Old people and babies were the most vulnerable to eye and lung damage, as were those with respiratory ailments like asthma. The medical remedies available to them were primitive and makeshift. The Red Cross furnished light gauze masks, and people stuffed rags around windows and door cracks. Domesticated and wild animals often suffocated or were blinded.
As the agricultural base of the region was buried under dust, extreme hardship loomed over the southern plains. In May 1934 dust fell from a massive storm on the Mall and the White House in Washington, D.C., and helped focus federal attention on the desperate situation. The Soil Erosion Service of the United States Department of Commerce established the Dalhart Wind Erosion Control Project in 1934 under the direction of Howard H. Finnell. That year $525 million was distributed to cattlemen for emergency feed loans and as payment for some of their starving stock; farmers were provided with public jobs such as building ponds and reservoirs or planting shelter-belts of trees. Seed loans were provided for new crops, and farmers were paid to plow lines of high ridges against the wind. In 1935 the Soil Conservation Service of the USDA replaced the Soil Erosion Service and opened the Region Six office in Amarillo. There Finnell supervised the conservation work for the entire Dust Bowl. With the cooperation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Work Projects Administration, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration, state extension services, and other agencies, the Soil Conservation Service made efforts to limit the worst effects of wind erosion. Also in 1935 the Texas legislature established conservation districts for wind-erosion control in nine Panhandle counties, where local authorities were given power to force farmers to institute measures to halt blowing dust. Between 1935 and 1937 over 34 percent of the farmers in the area left.
The Dust Bowl was not only the result of bad weather but also of human actions that exacerbated the drought. Immediately before the thirties men had entered the plains fired with enthusiasm to make them yield abundant wealth, and, in a few short years, they had destroyed much of the native grass holding the dirt in place (see GRASSLANDS). Some of them had overstocked the land with cattle and reduced its ability to survive a time of severe drought. Others had come intent on transforming the area into row-crop agriculture. Both sorts of settler ignored the hard-won experience of their predecessors on the plains as well as available scientific data and thereby put at risk a vulnerable environment.
In the boom years of the twenties, from 1925 to 1930, the time of what one writer has called "the great plow-up," farmers tore up the vegetation on millions of acres in the southern plains, an area nearly seven times the size of Rhode Island. They introduced new gasoline tractors, which allowed them to plow faster than ever before. Some "suitcase farmers" had no more responsible plan than speculating on a quick crop or two. More grandiosely, the movie mogul Hickman Price arrived in Plainview, Texas, in 1929 to establish a factory farm covering over fifty-four square miles in Swisher, Castro, and Deaf Smith counties. To every part of the region came similar pacesetters who fervently believed in the twenties' creed of unlimited, laissez-faire economic expansion and who were convinced that modern methods of industrial capitalism, so apparently successful elsewhere in the economy, were what the plains needed. Even traditional conservative agriculturists were induced to follow these entrepreneurs' lead and try to cash in on a period of good weather and high market demand. Most of the freshly plowed ground went into wheat, so that during the twenties wheat production jumped 300 percent, creating a severe glut by 1931. When the black blizzards began to roll, one-third of the Dust Bowl region-thirty-three million acres-lay ungrassed and open to the winds.
The origin of the Dust Bowl was therefore related to the near-simultaneous collapse of the American economy. Both catastrophes revealed the darker side of entrepreneurialism, its tendency to risk long-term social and ecological damage in the pursuit of short-term, private gain. The New Deal was elaborated partly to prevent such disasters in the future. Some argue that plains agriculture was chastened by the Dust Bowl years and has, with government help, reformed itself adequately so that the thirties nightmare will not recur. Others, less sanguine, point to the dust storms of the mid-1950s and 1970s as evidence that the old Dust Bowl can be reborn, if and when weather and market forces collide again. See also WEATHER.